The Jersey Devil (and how Ben Franklin used it in a fear campaign)

Written By: Jenae

The Pinelands is home to some of the most beautiful scenery found in New Jersey, a densely wooded area with unique forms of life that rely on the nutrient poor soil and many fires in the area to live, thrive, and reproduce. A vastly different place compared to the many bustling cities like New York City and Philadelphia nearby. What many don’t know is deep within the Pinelands, in an area called Leeds Point, a monster lives with an origin story that dates back to the 1700s. Today, we’re talking about the Leeds Devil, also known as the Jersey Devil.


What is the Jersey Devil?


The Jersey Devil is a terrifying animal. It’s been described as having a kangaroo like body, with bat wings, a horse head, cloven feet, claws, horns, and a forked tail. It’s said the Jersey Devil makes a shrieking noise, one that will chill you to the bone. There are many skeptics and believers of the Jersey Devil.




Origin Story:

Legend has it one of the first families to arrive here and colonize New England settled in what is now New Jersey. This family is known as the Leeds Family. The Leeds Family was made up of 12 children, mother Deborah Leeds and father Japhet Leeds. It’s said they had issues, finances were tight with a 14 person family and Japhet was a drunk, hell bent on refusing to help care for his family. It’s rumored that Deborah Leeds was pregnant with a 13th child in 1735 and that she was stressed over this pregnancy, making remarks like “let it be the devil” upon learning of the pregnancy. This was the wrong thing to say. On a rainy night in 1735, Deborah Leeds went into labor with the 13th child. By all accounts of midwives there, the Leeds welcomed a healthy baby boy into their home that night. Within just minutes of giving birth to what she believed to be a healthy, normal baby boy, the child began to change. The baby grew at a rate much faster than a normal child. Within a short period of time, this beautiful baby turned into the stuff of nightmares; horns, bat-like wings, claws, feathers, and fur everywhere. It’s believed that Deborah Leeds cursed her child to this OR that the child’s father was actually the devil. It’s said that the creature killed Deborah Leeds and some onlookers, while shrieking it’s horrible noise, before flying out of the chimney and into the surrounding area now known as Leeds Point, lost within the Pinelands of New Jersey. The Jersey Devil didn’t kill everyone in the home, those who lived did recount the story of seeing this creature. It’s believed that the Jersey Devil still calls this area home.


Sightings:


By the late 1700s, many in the area and those new to the area had learned of the Leeds Devil. Throughout the rest of the 1700s, and the 1800, the Jersey Devil was seen off and on in the Pinelands marshes and woods. It’s noises could be heard from nearby and animals in the area would often end up dead. Even Napoleon's brother claimed to have seen the beast while hunting on his US estate in 1820. The most notable sighting wouldn’t happen until 1909.


In 1909, strange footprints began being reported. These footprints were found in the snow and dirt, but also across rooftops, through fields, fences, and backyards. This elicited panic from the areas of Camden and Philadelphia, the two closest and largest cities. The paper began reporting on it, saying that the police were using hounds to find it, but the dogs refused to follow that scent. People were so afraid that many didn’t send their children to school for nearly a week. Even lumber mills in the Pine Barrens areas closed, because workers were afraid of being attacked by the Jersey Devil. There are stories of sightings in both Philadelphia and Camden at the time, and reports of police shooting the beast down, only for it to reappear in another city nearby. The sightings began to become attacks, on trolleys full of people and social clubs, usually late a night. This also prompted hunters to search the woods for the Devil. The Philadelphia Zoo even offered a $10,000 reward for it’s capture. The reward was never collected despite the many hoax attempts made by people.

In 1927, the beast was spotted again. This time, he attacked a cab driver late at night while he was changing a flat tire. The Jersey Devil swooped down and attacked, the driver got in his car, while the beast attacked the roof of the car. The driver reported this to police, but many believed it to be an owl and not the beast.


In 1960, the nearby town of May’s Landing began to hear unsettling screams, but didn’t know where they were coming from. Because of this and the proximity to the Jersey Devil’s nesting area, police put up flyers stating that the Jersey Devil wasn’t real. However, a circus owner in town began putting up his own flyers, proclaiming a $100,000 reward for the beast. The reward was never claimed. In the 70s, a woman saw the Jersey Devil in her rearview mirror while driving through a wooded area. She described this creature as having leathery wings, the head of a horse, goat like hind quarters, but it stood upright. She sped out of the area as fast as she could. In the 80s, a park ranger stumbled upon quite a sight in the Wharton State Forest: a whole pack of pigs, dead in the road. It seems they had been let out and attacked by a local animal, but upon closer inspection, it seemed the pigs had talons in their backs while the creature ate only their brains, the rest of the bodies were intact.. The ranger noted that this was not the typical attack of an animal that happens in the area.


In 2015, the was a suspected sighting on a golf course, but when the photos were released, it was laughable. The guys from Ghost Adventure even went to hunt for it, to no avail.


Ben Franklin and the Historical Basis for the Legend:

One of the many things that Ben Franklin did was print and sell Farmer’s Almanacs to colonial settlers. His primary competition: Daniel Leeds of the Leeds Family. He tried to convince settlers to buy from him, as he wasn’t, "from a family of monsters." This caused many of the Quakers in the area to single Daniel Leeds out as “pagan” and he was cast out by the Purtian society that ruled the area at the time. Because of this, Daniel began dabbling in Christian occultism and natural magic, Leeds was considered evil. Because of this, Ben Franklin spread the story of the Leeds Devil far and wide, except it was in reference to Daniel Leeds and his “blasphemous” writings.


Conclusion:

In short, the myth of the Jersey Devil has likely been debunked, due to the Ben Franklin theory. There’s no real tangible historical basis for the Jersey Devil, yet it’s still considered one of the scariest legends of the area. Many believe that what was seen as the Jersey Devil was actually a hammerhead bat, but this bat is exclusive to certain regions of Africa. For now, the Jersey Devil is no more than a legend that the locals find funny, similar to Mothman. In the 80s, New Jersey named their hockey team the Jersey Devils based off the legend. Every year, there’s a festival in honor of the legend where there’s a Jersey Devil costume and tattoo contests, hunts for the beast, and more. That is where the story of the Jersey Devil ends… for now.


Sources: Wikipedia, The Pineland Preservation Alliance, Weird NJ, Atlantic County , Press of Atlantic City, NJ, History Collection